Human beings are wired to want to connect. It’s why we do so much of what we do. Highly empathic people are good at connecting with others, however, they also have a greater tendency to experience higher volumes of the other end of the spectrum: shame.
Dr. Brene Brown’s interview on the topic delves into her research on empathy, and how learning to combat its antithesis-- shame-- is crucial to living an open, connected life.
First, Brown describes the connection between the two. “If you think about connection on a continuum, what I have learned is that anchoring this end of the continuum [gestures to left] is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationships. On the other side of the continuum connection [gestures to right] is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people.”
There is a third factor: vulnerability. Brown describes vulnerability as the knob you turn to decide which end of the continuum you’ll end up on. There is good vulnerability and bad vulnerability. Good vulnerability opens you up, enhancing your capacity for empathy, and therefore connection, while bad vulnerability shuts you down under the blanket of shame. Many empaths feel strongly their own vulnerability, and it can be a struggle to stay open, as empaths typically care about others more than themselves, sometimes inducing them to shut themselves down so as to not bother others.
According to Brown, shame tells us: “I can’t let you see these pieces of me because I fear that it will cause disconnection.” However, shame shuts us down, breaking the capacity for connection after all. “Shame breeds three things: fear, blame, and disconnection.”
Brown’s research has lead her to believe the solution is threefold: “Courage, compassion, and connection.”
The question she poses is this: “How do we practice courage in a culture where we are incredibly afraid of not fitting in? How do I tell you my stories about those imperfect moments in my life?... How do I tell these stories-- which is the only way of getting out from underneath shame-- in a culture where belonging and fitting in and being accepted are so critically important?”
Brown says, courage, in the original sense of the word, meant to “speak your mind with your heart.” She professes we must speak courageously from the heart, treat ourselves and others with compassion, and learn to recognize when shame over imperfection is severing our connections.
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